The Palace “Al-Aziz” — La Zisa in Italian and English, is an Arab-Muslim monument in the Norman capital of Palermo in Sicily. The Normans were descendants of the Vikings who invaded France and Italy in the tenth and eleventh centuries.
This palace is one of many garden pavilions constructed by Arab craftsmen in southeast Palermo and was utilized during this Norman period (1061-1194). Norman kings adopted Arabic Islamic culture, spoke Arabic, used Arabic titles, and employed Arab professionals in all fields.
|La Zisa is a Norman period building with Arab and Islamic influences in Palermo, Sicly.|
The “La Zisa” palace represents the persistent tradition of Arab rulers in Sicily of erecting “pleasure residences”or royal parks furnished with gardens, kiosks and fountains. Its distinct Arab-Islamic architectural plan, decorative elements and design show that the palace and its complex must have existed before the Norman arrival but was rebuilt and renovated during the reign of the Norman King William I between 1165-1180.
The name La Zisa is derived from the Arabic name of the palace “Al-Aziz” or the dear one. It is rectangular in plan, fashioned after the Fatimid-North African Islamic architectural model and has outer walls decorated with blind arcades incorporating tiers of windows. It was erected on the highest point of the area and served both as a residence and a watch-tower. It included rooms and a large central iwan or hall. Above the iwan, on the first floor, was the Hall of the Winds, a roofless terrace surrounded by a portico resting on four angular columns.
|Detailing shows decorative Arabic calligraphy. PHOTOS: Hashim Al-Tawil|
Upon entering the building the visitor is welcomed by an impressive water fountain (shadhirwan or salsabil) which is a slanted, zigzagged slab on the wall that allows water to whisper down through marble canal feeding into a central fountain in a pool connected to descending levels of gardens surrounding the palace. The façade of the iwan is decorated with magnificent corbelled Islamic muqarnas or stalactites adorned with beautiful Arabic Nuskhi monumental calligraphy in relief stucco. The text reads in poetic tune:
“…You shall see the great king of his century in his beautiful dwelling place, a house of joy and splendor which suits him well. …. This is the earthly paradise that opens to the view, the king (William I) is the Musta’iz (title of a caliph), … this palace is the Aziz (the dear).
In its heyday the palace and its garden complex was alive with beautiful trees, flowers, exotic animals and birds.
After centuries of neglect, Sicilian authorities have finally begun to preserve and restore the monument and its surroundings. La Zisa is now a tourist attraction housing important Islamic antiquities of that period on display inside the building.
Dr. Hashim Al-Tawil is professor of art history at Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.